Thursday, January 22, 2015

World Beyond, The (1978) (TV)

... aka: Monster
... aka: Mud Monster, The
... aka: World Beyond - "Monster," The

Directed by:
Noel Black

A listing in a January, 1978 TV Guide calls this "a pilot for a proposed, but unscheduled, series." Actually, it was the second pilot episode for the same proposed series devised by "Dark Shadows" writer Art Wallace. The first episode, aired nine months earlier in April 1977, was called The World of Darkness and featured the same lead character / actor, same concept and same opening sequence. CBS ran both of these hour-long- including-commercials episodes but apparently decided the ratings weren't good enough to commission more and that was effectively the end of the World. All that's available to us now is a faded, poor-quality copy that someone recorded off of television back in the day. It's sold on several bootleg sites like iOffer and Cinefear complete with commercials from its (one-time?) TV airing and has also popped up on Youtube. Unfortunately, no one seems to have recorded the first pilot episode and thus it may be lost to the sands of time. The only footage currently available to view from it are contained in a 10-second-long TV promo that hints its plot involves some kind of haunting. Does anyone out there have a copy of The World of Darkness? That's what I'd like to know.

Sportswriter Paul Taylor (Granville Van Dusen) gets in a motorcycle accident, is rushed off to a hospital, dies for exactly 2 minutes and 37 seconds and is then resuscitated with defibrillator paddles. He's not only picked up "an intimate knowledge of death" in the process but now he's also in tune with the spirit world and is given instructions by whispering ghosts as to who needs help from various supernatural threats. In this case, he's given a location, a name and is simply told to "help her." The place is Logan's Island, the person is Marian Faber and she's in need of assistance, so Paul gets in his car and takes off. Since the island is accessible only by boat, Paul gets a lift from Andy Borchard ("special guest star" Barnard Hughes) and ends up meeting Marian (JoBeth Williams) on the ride over. Marian has received a letter from her brother Frank (Richard Fitzpatrick), who's one of the island's only inhabitants, telling her he has a surprise to show her. What that is has yet to be determined.

Various clues that something isn't quite right turn up immediately upon arrival. Frank's boat is sunk, Andy's docile pet pooch Lover (yes, he named his dog Lover, which goes beyond weird right into the realm of creepy) turns on him and chews up his arm and they hear strange noises coming from the woods. Upon inspecting Frank's house, they discover that he's boarded up all the windows and his bookshelves are filled with books about casting spells and incantations. Something sinks their boat. The dog is killed. A neighbor is found dingy, dying and muttering a three letter word that begins with M and ends with D. I'm sure U have figured it out by now. And lots of wet dirt seems to be all over the place. Turns out that Frank has created himself a Golem, a figure in Hebrew folklore said to be a body without a soul fashioned from mud and sticks and brought to life through magic. And though this particular Golem isn't very friendly and kills for no apparent reason, he'd prefer it if you didn't call him salty!

So what we have here is a modest, simple, undemanding little monster movie that's pretty fun for what it is. The acting's good, the dialogue's pretty silly at times (Doubt you'll be hearing anyone utter "Mud pies don't go around killin' dogs and people!" anywhere but here) and there are a few neat little touches here and there, like the mudman's hand continuing to attack after being severed. Director Black began his career with a short called Skaterdater (1966) that earned him the Palme d'Or at Cannes and an Oscar nomination and followed with the excellent black comedy Pretty Poison (1968) starring Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld. After that, several critical and commercial flops no one was interested in seeing relegated him to TV for most of the rest of his career, He does a fairly good job with what was handed to him here and even orchestrates one of the best jump scares I've seen in quite some time.

Oh, you want to see the monster now, do you?

And not even a 'mud angel' will pacify you? Fine.

Yes, I know that's just a hand on fire, but...

Yes, I know there's a flame covering most of it, but...

Too blurry? Yes, well...

Too blurry and too dark? I guess I see what you mean...

I'm seriously trying here... but this print is so bloody awful I don't think I can get a decent shot...

OK, screw it. I'm giving up now.

This was a Time-Life Television production filmed in Canada and has a copyright date of 1977, which means it was likely filmed back-to-back with the first World. The poor condition of the print I viewed didn't help in the creature visibility department any, but it was designed by the prolific Roger George. It's often said to have the alternate title The Mud Monster, but I can find no proof it was ever released under that title. The one I viewed called the episode simply Monster.


La maschera del demonio (1960)

... aka: Black Sunday
... aka: Demon's Mask, The
... aka: Hour When Dracula Comes, The
... aka: House of Fright, The
... aka: Mask of Satan, The
... aka: Mask of the Demon
... aka: Revenge of the Vampire

Directed by:
Mario Bava

Though not the first post-war Gothic horror out of Italy - that would be I VAMPIRI (1957) aka The Devil's Commandment (which was also the first Italian horror film of the sound era) - it is La maschera del demonio that would become the crossover international hit to kick start the whole Italian horror renaissance of the 60s and 70s. Shot for about 100,000 dollars in 6 weeks, the film was a minor success in its homeland, making back most of its production budget there, but it was an even bigger success abroad. In the U.S., distributor American International Pictures, who re-dubbed the film a second time, removed about three minutes of violent content and replaced Roberto Nicolosi's original score with a new one by Les Baxter, had their biggest money-maker up to that time with this film. Not only were audiences thrilled, but so were many in the critical establishment, who gave it an uncommonly positive reception for a genre film of its time. As it stands now, Sunday's negligible dubbing and rather routine story line haven't stood up particularly well but, honestly, who really cares? This is a gorgeously-made, moody, sumptuous and haunting film staged, lit and photographed to maximize the feelings of dread and horror. As far as I'm concerned, the astonishing visuals alone make this a true classic... and they remain almost unchallenged to this day.

17th Century witch / vampiress Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) is condemned by the Grand Inquisitor of Moldavia, who also happens to be her brother, and has the spiked mask of Satan hammered onto her face... but not before placing a curse upon the descendants of her executioners. A sudden rainstorm extinguishes the fire meant to burn her and, instead, her corpse is moved to the family ancestral tomb for burial. Two centuries later, Professor Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his handsome young colleague Dr. Andre Gorobec (John Richardson) are passing through the area on their way to a medical conference in Moscow when their stagecoach breaks down on a back road. The two end up stumbling upon the Vajda family tomb, go inside and find the casket containing Asa's corpse. Not one to believe in local superstition, Thomas casually desecrates the tomb in a variety of ways that include breaking a stone cross (which was placed in front of a glass window on the casket to supposedly keep Asa's spirit at rest) and removing the mask from her face. After accidentally cutting himself and dribbling some blood on the body, Thomas and Andre leave, briefly encountering a strange, beautiful woman walking dogs outside the chapel.

Meanwhile, at the Vajda Castle and the neighboring village, strange things are afoot. Lord Vajda (Ivo Garrani) - a descendant of both the executed witch and her executioner - notices some strange changes in a painting and sees the reflection of the death mask cast in liquid inside a cup. The Lord soon grows ill and delirious, so his children; Katia (also Steele) and Constantine (Enrico Olivieri), send for Dr. Kruvajan, little realizing he's already under the spell of the newly-revived Asa. Asa has also brought back an old friend to help her out; resurrecting her former accomplice Javutich (Arturo Dominici), who'd been executed in a similar fashion as her at the same time and buried in a peasant's graveyard. People turn up dead or become possessed, corpses are brought back to life, secret passageways are discovered and Dr. Gorobec - with help from a village priest (Antonio Pierfederici) - attempt to stop Asa before she's able to complete her ultimate goal: possessing Katia so she can live once again to do Satan's bidding.

Black Sunday contains pretty much everything lovers of vintage black-and-white Gothic horror flicks could possibly want to see, from mysterious ancient cemeteries filled with dying trees to cobweb-strewn dungeons to candlelit strolls through dimly-lit corridors and secret passages. Swirling mists and lightning flashes illuminate a cemetery as a ghoul emerges from the grave, carriages make their way through the thick fog in slow-motion, flickering light cast over water creates a wavering effect on the walls before a heavy door shuts, an undead witch heaves with sadistic, sensual delight on the slab... All of these standard Gothic trappings are done with so much visual style and with such meticulous craftsmanship nearly every single frame seems like a gloomy work of individual art. In fact, the individual frames are so beautifully composed, it almost felt like a crime having to shrink the screen caps down to fit this blog! The photography, camerawork, art direction, sets, lighting and overall mood and atmosphere are all, in a word, outstanding.

Even in censored form, Black Sunday was considered extremely gruesome for its day. It was not only trimmed for U.S. showings but was actually banned in the UK until 1968, when a version even more censored than what played in America was released. The film in its uncut form wouldn't even make it past the UK censors until 1992! What's seen in the full 87 minute version is indeed pretty heavy stuff for 1960. Aside from the legendary opening mask scene and its accompaniment of gushing blood, there's an eyeless corpse festering with bugs, blood bubbling under empty eye sockets, flesh burning after being branded with a hot iron, a face roasting in a fire, an eyeball poked out and much more. The special effects - most of which were done by Bava himself, who also shot this - are excellent for the time. Perhaps most impressive here are aging effects foregoing the usual time-lapse technique in favor of utilizing lighting and special makeup so it could be done smoothly in just one take.

Bava was handed this assignment - his (credited) feature directorial debut - after proving his mettle salvaging three other troubled productions for production company Galatea Film, after their directors - Jacques Tourneur in the case of The Giant of Marathon (1959) and Riccardo Freda in the case of both I Vampiri and Caltiki - The Immortal Monster (1959) - walked off the sets. He makes the absolute most of the opportunity here and it's easy to see why he went on to become one of the most acclaimed and influential genre directors of all time over the next two decades. In her dual role, the fascinating and stunning Steele also makes a huge impression, particularly playing the witch. It's no wonder she went on to a healthy career playing vamps, vixens, virgins and villains in numerous other Gothic horrors after this one.

The version I viewed was from "The Mario Bava Collection Volume 1" box set distributed by Anchor Bay, which also contains the Bava films Black Sabbath (1963), The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963), Kill, Baby... Kill! (1966) and the non-horror Knives of the Avenger (1966). Arrow Films released a remastered blu ray in 2013.

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